Escaping the Wilderness: Part 1 – The canoe trip

It is good to be back writing an Internet Monk again after a much needed two week writing break.

I wrote back in July that I was hoping to do one more canoe trip this year. Well, a few weeks ago I finally got the broken thwarts on my canoe repaired and took to the water again, this time with a friend, Peter, who I had last gone canoeing with thirty four years ago. It was the same canoe that we had used on our previous trip, so many years back. We visited the same wilderness park, and for nostalgia’s sake I wore the same hat, a great leather Beverly Hillbilly type, that my Dad had bought for me about forty years ago.

In our university days, Peter and I had the well earned reputation of spurring each other on to bad decisions, stories that will be left for another day. This year was no exception. You only live once right? Last year, my son and I took the same trip down the Mississauga river and decided to portage around all the rapids. This year my friend and I decided to run as many as we could.

I should add that one of my purposes of this trip, other than spending time with my friend, was to create a photo collection of all the waterfalls and rapids in the river. There is about fifteen of them over a twenty-one kilometre (thirteen mile) stretch.

About forty minutes after we started out, we hit our first rapids. After scouting it out we decided on a route through it that would work, and ran it successfully. It was a lot of fun.

The second one was not navigable, at least not for us, so we portaged around it.

The third looked even more challenging than the second, so again we portaged.

At 11:15 we hit our forth set of rapids. It seemed to be quite canoeable down the one side of the rapids, but would be an interesting challenge for our skill level.

It was, but as we exited the first, most difficult part of the rapids, we lost our balance a bit, tipped over, swamped the canoe, and tumbled out. Not a problem, we just needed to get down stream a bit to where the current eased up. We didn’t make it. The canoe got turned sideways, and the force of the current broke it open over a rock.

There we were, in the middle of the wilderness, with a broken canoe, and ten miles of river and rapids in front of us. (I do use the word wilderness a little loosely, a road paralleled the river, and was never more than two miles away.)

Fortunately I came prepared. Whether travelling in a large fleet of canoes, or travelling over a difficult section in a single canoe, there is a significant probability of something going wrong. In our canoe we had a very few number of things, life jackets, and emergency kit, sunscreen, bug spray, food for the day, water purifying tablets, emergency diabetic supplies (I am a Type 1 diabetic), and a fiberglass repair kit!

The next three hours were spent extricating the canoe from the water (it was pinned against a rock), drying the canoe, sanding the area that needed to be repaired, applying two layers of fiberglass mat and sealer, and then letting the fiberglass patch cure.

A couple passed us while we working on the canoe. “You are repairing your canoe in the bush? Wow, that’s hardcore!” Other than one other canoe that we saw at the start of our trip, and another near a cottage at the end of of the trip, they were the only other canoe on the river that entire day.

Three hours after we ran into trouble we were ready to go again.

There was a significant complicating factor. The canoe trip takes nine to ten hours. We put in at 9:20 a.m. Sunset was at 8:20, and there were portages, and rapids with no portage that had to be run, right up to the exit point.

9:20 a.m. + 9 + 3 = 9:20 p.m. And that was our most opportunistic time.

Thus ended the waterfall photo opportunities. We did get nice photos and videos of the first three portages, and almost none of the rest. I guess that gives me an excuse to try the trip again at another date.

We set off again, knowing that we really had to move fast to get off the river in time. Immediately upon launching we realized that we had a problem. There was another hole in the other side of the canoe that we had missed when doing our repair! It was a smaller hole, but it was below the water line and was spouting water into the boat quite quickly. We had no more time available, so we could not take another two hours to properly fix it.

Deep in the recesses of my brain I remembered that you could use pine sap to temporarily plug a hole in a canoe. I didn’t know how I knew that, I just knew that I did. (I found out from my Dad later that he had had to use that technique when I was a very young boy, and that was probably what I had remembered.)

We quickly found a pine tree that had some congealed sap running down it. There wasn’t a lot, but we worked what we could get into the hole. It worked! The canoe didn’t leak the whole rest of the trip.

Sometimes, when life throws you a curve, and you get stuck in the wilderness, there may be serendipitous moments. (“Hey honey, what’s that word where unexpected good things happen to you?” I wonder if any other writers use their spouse as a walking thesaurus.)

Downstream a few more miles we came across the couple who had passed us when we were repairing our canoe. They had set up camp for the night, and while she went for a swim he had set up all kinds of banners and pictures around the campsite saying “Will you marry me!”. They had just gotten engaged a couple of minutes before we arrived!  Quite the serendipitous moment. It was also very serendipitous for her that we hadn’t arrived five minutes earlier when she had been skinny dipping in the river! (As a side note, seeing skinny dippers in the wilderness is not that uncommon. I have spent an entire week in a lake on several occasions and not seen a single other person other than whoever I was with. On three other occasions I have seen skinny dippers on the same lake, who also weren’t expecting to see anyone else. A canoe is a pretty silent mode of transport. )

As we portaged around their camp, and the associated stretch of rapids, Peter had a walking stick insect land on him.  It then climbed on to my back where we got this picture.  Isn’t that a great hat!  Another serendipitous  moment as this was only the third one I had seen in my lifetime.

Another serendipitous moment came another hour downstream. A black bear crossed the river right in front of us! It was far enough away for us not be worried about it, but close enough that we got a very good view. It was probably about three years old, half way in size between a cub and a full grown adult. In the fifteen seconds it took me to get my camera out, it was gone. Thirty seconds later when we reached the point where it had crossed, it had already disappeared over a ridge. In my fifty two years of canoeing in this park (admittedly with some gaps) this was only the second time I had seen a bear. The first time, the bear had been on the other side of a lake several hundred yards away, and barely distinguishable. So this was a very special moment for me indeed.

We weren’t stopping to take pictures, but we did get a quick shot of this waterfall as we portaged around it.

We were soon travelling through a flatter section of the river, and although we didn’t see any beaver, we did see much evidence of them being in area. As we rounded one corner we heard the slap of a beaver tail as a warning to the colony that a canoe was coming. With the sun starting to get lower in the sky, the river turned very dark. The wind also dropped and the river became as still as a mill pond. We were treated to the most beautiful reflections in the water. Peter commented that this wasn’t something we would have seen nearly as well if we had been several hours earlier.

The engaged couple caught up to us and passed us. She was so excited about the engagement that they didn’t want to wait to tell family. Their canoe was much lighter than ours and they were able to do the portages much faster than we were. I was starting to struggle a bit with blood sugar levels and energy, so needed to take my time on the portages. They were also excited because they had seen four beaver that had managed to elude us. (Last year my son and I had a beaver swim next to our canoe for about fifteen seconds, which was another one of those unexpected moments.) The couple were however, also quite jealous when they heard about our the bear sighting.

We did bang a couple more rocks in the final few sections of the river. I discovered a couple of nasty gashes in the bow of the canoe when I got home, but nothing that actually impacted the integrity of the canoe.

The sun had set by the time we did our final portage, and we ran the last rapids as darkness was falling.

The other couple had arrived at the takeout point just a few minutes in front of us, only to discover that the car that they were expecting to have dropped off for them wasn’t there as they were a day earlier than expected. As a final serendipitous event, we were able to give them a lift back up to her parents’ cottage, just a couple of kilometers from our starting point.

With our car we drove back to the starting point where we had left our other car, then drove both vehicles back to our canoe at the finishing point.We loaded the canoe, and then drove forty minutes back to Peter’s cottage, arriving just before midnight for a well earned sleep.

The day hadn’t gone as planned by any stretch of the imagination, but, as Peter and I commented to each other, it had been much more memorable as a result. “Remember the day we went white water canoeing, smashed the canoe, repaired it in the bush, and saw a bear, and ran our last rapids in the dark?” Good times, my friend, good times.

This post, hasn’t exactly gone as expected either. I sat down a couple of hours ago to write about what was happening in my life in terms of escaping the what we call at Internet Monk the “Post-Evangelical Wilderness”. I realized that what was intended to be a quick introduction was rapidly turning into a post of its own which rather conveniently had the same title. So stay tuned the next couple of Fridays when I will get into some new, rather surprising, territory.

As usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome. As a change of pace, do you have any escapades that you think the rest of the Internet Monk readership would find interesting? Feel free to share them in the comments.

I will leave you with one last picture.  Same two guys, same park, same canoe, same hat.  Thirty four years ago.

17 thoughts on “Escaping the Wilderness: Part 1 – The canoe trip

  1. Hey Mike, Good memories
    Willie Wild horse has an identical hat
    .Those hats were great for bailing water out of the canoe.
    One of us had a bullet hole through the crown.
    I remember one disastrous trip where I fell and cracked my elbow and you were about 12 yes old . We broke camp and you paddled and portaged for miles without much help from me.
    You are a good man to rife the river with


  2. Amazing story, and wonderful serendipitous moments! As a kayaker/canoeist who recently experienced water troubles, I can appreciate your creativity in problem solving. What a fantastic voyage you had! A journey you’ll remember the rest of your life…peace to you.


  3. Went on my first ‘real’ camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area earlier this year. Was a lot of fun, glad I went…but canoes suck. I need some sort of seat back otherwise I’m in pain in like 30 minutes!

    Don’t worry guys I’ll be over here lying flat on a rock til something pops…


  4. Wonderful trip, Mike – many opportunities for Gratitude.

    My most “extreme” adventure was hiking up the sides of a couple of volcanoes in Hawaii – to the top of Diamond Head, and then on Maui up one side of Haleakala through a bamboo forest to a spectacular waterfall – just before I turned 60. It took me a long time, but I did it. My family was very patient!



  5. BEAUTIFUL pictures! thanks, Mike Bell

    All things considered (even the bear), I’ll take myself to the wilderness with joy! Yes!

    where the smoke blows black and the dark street winds and bends.
    Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
    we shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow
    and watch where the chalk-white arrows go
    to the place where the sidewalk ends.”
    (Shel Silverstein)


  6. Years ago (of course) I camped on the Mississauga Rive in 20 below weather. Blacky, the dog, kept my feet warm at night, sleeping on my sleeping bag. Fond memories.


  7. Fantastic! Beautiful photos! Canoeing is just the best. I feel for you on those rapids. My friend and I successfully maneuvered some challenging ones only to wipe out going through the smallest, most innocent looking one.


  8. Yikes – that is SO much more difficult than what I experience. I am very hypoglycemic aware which generally means that I always know when I am starting to go low and get treat it appropriately.


  9. You will lkely be part of their engagement story for the rest of their lives. “And then the guys who were fixing their boat showed up and drove us….”


  10. Interested in your diabetes experience sometime Mike. I’m a Type 3 diabetic (i.e. parent of child with Type 1).


  11. Mike Bell, Per the last picture it seems the canoe has not changed a bit in 30 years except that it sat higher in the water. That was a great recap of a trip I am sure was great and to me would be as much adventure as I could handle now. I still marvel at the Lewis and Clark expedition and how far they traveled before they got to their car.

    When I read nice recaps of days like this , I always think of Ann Landers, who had a column about a man in hurry to get to destination not realizing that the journey is our life and enjoy the journey. . To me your one day adventure would be world class and certainly a great memory.

    Thanks for sharing, it does me good to read a feel good , positive story, especially on the internet. I was impressed by the McGyver pine sap patch job.


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